I’m not the biggest fan of subject matter expert interviews. As an introvert, talking on the phone makes me cringe, and I often find myself dealing with long moments of awkward silence (which, let’s face it, is uncomfortable). I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
However, creating outstanding content often requires talking to experts, so knowing how to conduct a great interview is critical.
After all, subject matter expert (SME) interviews allow you to learn about your topic from the people who know it best, so you can add the depth your content needs to stand out and get noticed. Plus, their insights can make your job as a writer so much easier.
Whether you’re speaking with a member of your team or an industry key opinion leader, here are a few essential interview tips that will help you get the information you need from any subject matter expert – no matter how introverted you may be.
1. Come to the meeting prepared
Before the interview, spend some time doing research on the industry and/or topic you’ll be writing about.
While it’s unreasonable for you to learn everything about the topic on your own, it’s important to do enough research so that you can ask great questions on the call. Doing your research ahead of time also ensures you don’t waste time having the SME explain simple concepts that you could’ve learned on your own – which is a waste of your time and theirs.
Based on your research, prepare a list of questions for your subject matter expert. And take it from me, write down more questions that you think you’ll need to write your content.
You never know where the interview might take you. Having a long list of questions helps you prepare for the unexpected during interviews and gives you plenty of information to work with when it comes time to write.
2. Ask open-ended questions
In my experience, subject matter expert interviews usually go one of two ways:
- I ask one question that takes the SME 30 minutes to answer.
- I ask 20+ questions that the SME answers with “yes,” “no” or “it depends.”
If you end up with SME #1, consider yourself lucky. They’ll flood you with a wealth of information – including things you might not think to ask. And their passion and enthusiasm for the subject will make you so excited to start writing.
Sometimes, you’ll end up talking to SME #2. But asking open-ended questions – questions in which the individual can’t respond with a one-word answer – helps tremendously. Plus, it’s an easy way to avoid that awkward silence we all hate so much.
The next time an SME gives you a yes or no answer, try following up with questions like, “Tell me about a time when…” or “That’s really interesting. Can you explain this further?” This forces the SME to go into more detail, which gives you more information to work with.
These are also great questions to ask when you find the interview going in a different direction you expected – which, trust me, happens a lot. While the SME is busy giving you more details, you can spend time collecting your thoughts around this new direction so you can keep the conversation going.
3. Ask for clarification
Try as you might, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever know as much about an industry or topic as your SME. And lucky for you, they don’t expect you to.
If they provide you with an answer that doesn’t make sense, use jargon you don’t understand or are talking too fast, don’t just nod your head and keep moving forward. Stop the conversation, and ask for further clarification.
Frequently introverts have a hard time with this. We worry we’ll come across as if we are challenging the SME on a topic, or worse, that it’ll look like we haven’t fully prepared. But in reality, the SME may not even realize he’s talking over your head. And depending on how informed your target audience is, it may be very important to back up and make sure your content is reaching your audience at their level of understanding.
It’s also very difficult to “fake it” in your writing if your SME is saying things you absolutely don’t understand. If you find this happening, you absolutely have an obligation to your project to speak up.
4. Ask if the SME has anything else to add
Before ending the call, always ask your SME if there’s anything else they’d like to add or discuss. Maybe there’s something you missed during your research or something they think would add value to the content.
It’s astonishing how frequently this simple little question can prompt the most fruitful part of a conversation. These are the moments when, after the SME has already covered the “facts” of an issue, she can open up and speak candidly about her opinions on an issue. These little gems can give you a wealth of insights and help bump your content up to a new level of awesome.
5. Limit the number of people on the call
We’ve all been there – stuck in a meeting with too many people, everyone has a different opinion on the subject and two people are constantly talking over each other.
To avoid this, limit your interviews to one (maybe two) subject matter interviews at a time. This helps you keep the interview on track and ensures you walk away with valuable information that will help you write your content.
Also, don’t feel like everyone on your team needs to be on the call. Keep it to the most important people, such as the account manager and writer. If other people need to be kept in the loop, you can always record the call – which brings me to my next point.
6. Record the interview
Subject matter interviews can be fast-paced, nerve-wracking and overwhelming at times, which is why you should always record your calls.
Recording your calls allows you to concentrate on what the SME is saying and helps you stay engaged in the conversation rather than frantically typing every word they say. Plus, no matter how fast you type, it’s likely that you’ll miss a few things.
Even better, if you’re not bogged down taking manual notes, you can instead use your notepad to jot down new questions that come to mind based on something the SME has said, so that you can be sure to circle back to a topic if need be.
Once the call is over, get the call transcribed. (We use an online service called Rev.com, and they’re fantastic.) This will let you see exactly how the SME answered your questions and enable you to write your piece using the SME’s own words.
7. Keep the meeting short
Just like you, the SMEs you interview are busy people. Keep the meetings short and relevant. I’ve found that most often, 30 minutes is the perfect length for an SME interview.
But I’ve also been in situations where clients and SMEs found it easier to discuss all their monthly blogs during one meeting. These meetings usually last 60-90 minutes, and we’ll discuss anywhere from four to six blogs at a time.
Ultimately, work with your clients and/or SMEs to find a format that works best.
8. Follow up as needed
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve started writing a piece of content only to think to myself, “I really wish I would’ve asked another question about this topic!”
Don’t be afraid to follow up with your subject matter expert via email to ask additional questions or get clarification on something you may not fully understand. This means you need to review the results of your call early enough that you allow yourself extra time in case additional follow-up is needed.
Subject matter expert interviews aren’t always easy, and not every interview will go perfectly. But they are the best way to get helpful, valuable and engaging information for your content. By following the tips above, even the most introverted content marketer will be well on their way to conducting better SME interviews in no time.
Once you gather the right insights from your SMEs, it's time to start writing the content. Download our helpful Blog Post Templates for eight creative, proven, ready-to-use formats for amazing articles!